Being of Hungarian origin, I have had some experience with hot paprika. That’s why I was not averse to trying some of the hot sauces offered up for tasting at one of the many spice shops in New Orleans. I was cruising along, dipping crackers into various samples until I came to one called “Meet Your Maker.” I should have been deterred by the name and the fact that it came in a coffin-shaped box. What a memorable experience that turned out to be. And not in a good way! Never had I experienced such pain in the mouth. Obviously, the name of this concoction made from the notorious ghost peppers was not frivolously chosen. Trying to put the fire out with water was useless since capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the torment is not soluble in water. I rushed out to the street searching for a store that sold full-fat milk to dissolve the capsaicin and luckily found an ice cream stand. A giant vanilla cone eased the pain but a second cone was required to end the torture completely. Never again!
Believe me, when I was in the clutches of capsaicin, I didn’t care by what mechanism it was torturing me. But, being scientifically minded, my interest was aroused after the pain had subsided. It was clear that somehow the nervous system was involved, but how? That answer was finally provided by the University of California’s Dr. David Julius co-recipient of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. Dr. Julius discovered a gene that codes for a protein that acts as a receptor for capsaicin on the surface of nerve cells. When capsaicin engages this receptor, the nerve cell is activated and sends a message to the brain that is sensed as “boy, is this ever hot!”
Long before the mechanism of action of capsaicin was known, the Smith, Kline and French pharmaceutical company added hot-pepper extract to its popular Benzedrine decongestant inhaler. The fiery taste of capsaicin was expected to prevent people from cracking open the casing of the inhaler and consuming the contents. Why would anyone want to do that? Simple: the active ingredient in a Benzedrine inhaler was amphetamine! A compound that could deliver a wham of a high! When just sniffed as directed, amphetamine was an effective decongestant, but when the contents of the whole inhaler were swallowed, the amphetamine would produce a mind-altering effect. This was not necessarily a pleasant experience, given that the amount of amphetamine in the inhaler was 250 milligrams, far greater than the 5–10 milligrams in the tablets that were being prescribed at the time as a mood-elevating drug.
The inhaler-cracking habit had first cropped up in the 1930s in the jazz musician community. Charlie Parker, the famed saxophonist, was known to crack a Benzedrine inhaler before playing. But it was during the early ’40s that inhaler abuse made its mark. While amphetamine pills required a prescription, the inhalers were readily available over the counter. Guards at military prisons were sometimes known to supplement their income by smuggling inhalers to the prisoners for a handsome profit. In one Indiana prison, a guard was caught with more than three hundred inhalers in his room!
Smith, Kline and French really became concerned when they learned that drug users in British Columbia were breaking open the inhalers and mainlining the contents after mixing with morphine. The fear was that this would lead to Canadian authorities taking steps to legislate amphetamine as a narcotic, preventing the sale of Benzedrine inhalers without a prescription. That in turn would mean a significant loss of income. SKF, therefore, proposed to add capsaicin to the inhaler, as well as a black dye that would leave a nasty colour in an abuser’s mouth. The idea was that the irritation produced by the capsaicin and the marks left by the telltale black dye would discourage injection or ingestion of the contents of the inhaler.
How effective these deterrents were is not clear, but their addition to the products did keep the legislators away. California needed a bit more convincing, so SKF promised to add the black dye and picric acid to its product there. The picric acid tasted awful and caused nausea, which was claimed to prevent internal use. With this maneuvering, SKF managed to buy enough time to come up with a replacement for amphetamine in its inhaler, which it did by 1949. Benzedrex, the new “stimulation-free” inhaler, contained propylhexedrine as the active ingredient and replaced Benzedrine as an over-the-counter inhaler for people suffering from nasal congestion.
As far as hot sauces go, I learned my lesson. Only sweet Hungarian paprika for me now.